Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Dilemma: Chardonnay by another name

Photo: Culmina's winery gate

Selling Chardonnay is one of the more perplexing challenges facing wineries. One Okanagan winery with an excellent Chardonnay in its portfolio has quietly reduced the production by two thirds in recent years.

The reference is not to Culmina Family Estate Winery. This Golden Mile producer, which is owned by Donald Triggs and his family, is in a position to increase production as the estate’s Chardonnay vines mature.

While the varietal is named on the label, a proprietary name – Dilemma – is more prominent. To be sure, that name was not chosen to forestall those consumers who have developed a closed mind against Chardonnay.

The explanation is that there was an old block of Chardonnay on the property when the Triggs family bought it in 2007. Their dilemma was whether those old vines would produce to quality Chardonnay; or whether they should plant better clones in a better location in the vineyard.

The first vintage of Chardonnay from the old block was good … but not good enough for Triggs family’s long-term objectives. Those vines eventually were pulled out. The 2015 Dilemma is made from the young block.

One of the benefits of giving the wine a proprietary name, however, is it might make consumers curious enough to try Chardonnay again.

Why was the “Anything but Chardonnay” attitude born? Most blame it on the over-oaked Chardonnays that were being produced in Australia and California in the 1990s and that were popular at the time. However, big, buttery Chardonnays – most are now history- are difficult to pair with a wide range of food.

Consumers also discovered unoaked white wines, especially light, simple Pinot Grigio or crisp, refreshing Pinot Gris. These are easier to drink at lunch, or in the afternoon by the pool, or with seafood. In recent years, Chardonnay producers have fought back with unoaked Chardonnay wines, with some success.

My own palate tells me that Chardonnay, unlike Pinot Gris, needs a little exposure to oak to unlock the variety’s complexity. That might be barrel fermentation, or barrel-aging for a short time, usually less than a year. The percentage of new oak barrels is strictly limited, so that the fruit remains the star.

Culmina has nailed that style. Wines like this are bringing consumers back to Chardonnay.

The other wine just released by Culmina is called R&D Red Blend. R and D refer to Ron and Don Triggs, who happen to be twins. Ron Triggs is not in the wine business but he has allowed his brother to create this catchy label, with a photo of the youthful brothers.

The wine is lower-priced and more accessible than Hypothesis, the winery’s flagship red. It is perfect for drinking while you wait for Hypothesis to mature in your cellar.

Here are notes on the wines.

Culmina Dilemma 2015 ($34). This elegant Chardonnay was carefully crafted so that oak is subtle, supporting the bright fruit and the voluptuous texture. The wine was aged  nine months in French oak barrels (35% new, 35% used), with the rest in stainless steel. The aroma is a mix of citrus lightly touched with vanilla. The palate is rich and intense, with flavours of tangerine, ripe apple and pear. A spine of minerality and also fresh acidity lead to a long, refreshing finish. The structure and acidity suggest the wine will cellar gracefully for several more years. 91.

Culmina R&D Red Blend 2015 ($34). This is a Meritage blend anchored with Merlot, supported with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and small quantities of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The wine shows the ripeness of the hot 2015 vintage. There are aromas of black cherry, blackberry and spice. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black olives and dark chocolate. Decanting allows the sweet dark fruit flavours to open on the palate. I would be inclined to cellar this as well for a few years. 91.


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